Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Harriet Tubman is a powerful figure in American history. An escaped slave who found freedom before returning to free many other slaves, she is a symbol of hope and bravery. Her story is given the cinematic treatment in Harriet, a drama positioning her as more of an action hero than a woman selflessly jeopardizing her freedom for that of her friends and family. She is obviously that too. However, it flirts with mythologizing her in a way that makes what she and those like her actually had to go through less important than her transformation into a vigilante of sorts. Do not get me wrong, this is a good movie with effective suspense and a captivating lead performance. I just think there is a more meaningful version of her story that does not borrow so much from superheroes.
Minty is living as a slave with her family on a Maryland plantation. When she learns she is going to be sold, she runs. She will risk death for the slim chance of freedom as opposed to continuing her reality as someone else’s property. After making it to Philadelphia, where she is reborn as free woman Harriet Tubman, she devotes herself to helping others do the same.
The title character is played by Cynthia Erivo as a strong woman, distinctly aware of the danger she is in, but even more scared of what will happen if she does not act. Erivo brings a humanity to the role that makes up for some of the stuff the screenplay does not have time for. She does what she does out of love, as well as morality. It starts from her heart and turns into a dedicated righteousness. This is mostly an adventure, yet Erivo is allowed space for thoughtfulness, which she definitely takes advantage of. This is a big role that practically screams “award nominations.” While I would not put Harriet on that level, I would not be surprised to see Erivo’s performance at least get into the conversation. She makes Tubman come alive in a way that elevates the entire production around her.
Harriet (119 minutes, without the end credits) is structured like an action movie, though it is not one. It does not exploit her deeds in that way, yet it does make sure to insert dramatic tension into the narrative as much as it can. The danger of being caught comes off as a thriller device instead of a real threat. It does not ignore the problems black people, free or slaves, faced at the time, it just makes them a little more palatable for mass audiences. This is not 12 Years a Slave. It is not about pain and suffering. It is about a woman finally getting to live after a lifetime of pain and suffering and how she puts her happiness on hold to give others the same opportunity. It leans on the positive side while showing enough of the negative to still make an impact.
Harriet Tubman’s story deserves to be told. If for nothing else, Harriet is valuable for ensuring that it is. It may not be the best possible movie adaptation of her life, but it is pretty good. It is exciting, inspiring and respectful. This is a very straightforward telling, given extra complexity by the central performance from Cynthia Erivo. I enjoyed it for what it was: the multiplex-friendly version of Harriet Tubman’s journey from a slave to a free abolitionist. If, in addition to being entertaining, it also encourages viewers to actively consider our country’s past and its effect on our present, than it will absolutely justify its existence.
3½ out of 5
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet
Clarke Peters as Ben Ross
Leslie Odom Jr. as William Still
Joe Alwyn as Gideon Brodess
Vanessa Bell Calloway as Rit Ross
Henry Hunter Hall as Walter
Janelle Monáe as Marie Buchanon
Vondie Curtis-Hall as Reverend Green
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons